Retro Review: A Journey to the Centre of the Earth

A Journey to the Centre of the Earth is a game of exploration and problem solving, which was unfortunately overlooked even in its own time. It’s a little tough, but if you have any room in your heart for the Metroidvania style of gameplay you will enjoy Journey as a pioneer of the art.

The Basics

The game was released by Ram Runner and OziSoft in the early to mid-1980s for the Commodore 64, and that’s almost as specific as one might get on the matter. It doesn’t seem to have been very popular, and I’ve certainly never met another person who has played it, so details are extremely scarce here.

I don’t know anything about Ram Runner, but OziSoft was an Australian publisher established in 1982 which has since been acquired by just about everybody, from Sega to Atari, and exists today as Namco Bandai Partners Australia Pty. Ltd., which is clearly a much better name.

Note that there is another, somewhat better-known game for the Commodore 64 called Journey to the Centre of the Earth (without the “A”), by Chip Software, but the two games have no relation whatsoever.

If it was based on a book, surely there must be one heckuva story

The game was based on the Jules Verne novel of the same name, but you likely wouldn’t know it without having been told. If the mass of white pixels comprising the playable character is meant to represent Professor Lidenbrock, so be it, but if you would prefer to consider it an Indiana Jones game you would have about as much to base that on.

There really is no story here, but it shouldn’t matter, and that’s really par for the course with older games anyway. Considering the stories in most games of this age, we are probably better off without one. Journey excels however of creating an atmosphere of exploration, which should drive you to find everything in its system of caves, far more effectively than would a want to see badly translated lines of dialog.

Let’s get spelunking!

And how!

The basic idea is that you climb down into a bunch of caves, find pieces of treasure, and return them to the surface to score points. Though the objective is points-based, it is still very much a game you can complete, as there are only so many treasures to find, and there is even a sort of end boss guarding the last piece of treasure.

I remember playing Journey extensively, in a time before Nintendo had arrived to shape my concept of what a video game could be, and I recall being amazed by the number of options open to me right from the start. You begin the game with a gun to your left and a pit to your right, but you don’t really need the gun to beat the game, and you can wander off to find another pit before you start your descent, if you prefer. Once you do head down, the game becomes a subterranean labyrinth full of items to find and figure out, with absolutely no guidance.

The items vary from the simple gun to things with less obvious uses, like an umbrella or a brick, or the scattered eggs which will teleport you back to where you found them. There is always a decision to be made regarding whether or not you want to pick an item up or just leave it there for possible use later on. You can only carry eight items — or six if you’d like to retain the ability to jump — so I personally found myself strategically moving items around the map to areas where I thought I might need them later.

Actually, when you stop to think of it, this game bears a striking resemblance to Metroid. Not only in that you find all kinds of powerups and proudly backtrack to once-unreachable areas with your newfound abilities, but even aesthetically, as you explore a series of color-coded caverns in four, non-linear directions.

Though, in Journey you can complete the whole game simply avoiding rather than firing on enemies, if you’re lucky, and this is generally the best way to go as there are only so many guns to find with six shots each.

How the hell do you do all of that on a C64?

Some of the difficulty of Journey comes from what I am going to politely term awkward controls. Yeah.

Basic left/right movement with the cursor keys is a little touchy, and you will find that you want to be pretty careful around ledges when you’re starting out. The sheer number of times I have accidentally walked off a ledge is horrifying, but I quickly developed the instinct to press the opposite direction when this happened, which causes the character to grab on to the ledge and climb back up safely. The number of times I then fell right back into the same pit is between me and the troll lord.

Jumping feels particularly clunky at first. A quick tap of the spacebar or fire button will see you jump straight upward, but if you hold the same button you will leap forward, often to disastrous effect when you mix the two up. You do get used to movement rather quickly, but even when you have things fairly well mastered you will still sometimes hop up and down (in a very special needs sort of way) when you mean to jump over a pit.

To use an item you press the number of its slot on your keyboard and then the spacebar or fire button. You can’t use, or even select, any item without coming to a dead stop first, which can induce a moment of panic when you face imminent danger. You also can’t climb or jump with most items selected, so you will rarely have your gun at the ready.

The controls don’t take all that long to get used to, and it’s amazing to see so many different abilities in a game like this, but it’s definitely something gamers of a more modern era will find a bit strange at first.

We’re giving you a passing grade because we don’t want you back next year.

I should mention that this is a hideously ugly game. Often this is where I would point out that it’s not that bad looking for its age, but honestly, it wasn’t particularly attractive back in the day either.

For some reason I’m totally into the look of it, which is probably just nostalgia. The “vampire bats” all look like seagulls, and the “baby dragon” more closely resembles a turtle, but the experience is probably better because of these failures in art design. I find it all totally charming.

It’s not a massive world, but you will really have to explore each area and learn the layout before you can expect to get to that last piece of treasure, so it will take you a while to complete. And by a while, I probably mean forever, since there is no save feature. If you use an emulator you might take advantage of save states, but if you’re a purist it’s time to start drawing maps and perfecting that strategic route to victory.

Sound design in this game is sort of rudementary, but it gets the job done. The music, on the other hand, is among the catchiest ever to pass my ears. I had the song — which loops forever, as you might expect — stuck in my head for most of my life before I learned that it was a midified version of House of Fun by Madness.

A Journey to the End of This Review

A Journey to the Centre of the Earth was a pretty unique game for its time, and there are still far too few games like it. If your senses are not offended by the mere look of it, and you are somewhat of a patient person, the game manages to hold up pretty well today with its rewarding gameplay of trial and error, risk and reward.

It’s hard to give a game with a variety of obvious flaws very high praise, but Journey really is a lot of fun to play today, some 20-30 years later. It may be ugly, glitchy, and almost impossible to beat, but it’s still a solid game.

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